WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s long-term planning will again come into focus on Saturday when they face Australia in the Rugby Championship, with his mantra of ‘raising the bar’ also likely to be tested.
Hansen’s goal in 2016 has been about ‘refreshing’ the team with an eye on becoming the first side to win three successive World Cups when Japan hosts the tournament in 2019, consistently improving the team’s standard of play along the way.
The inclusion of uncapped midfield back Anton Lienert-Brown for the clash at Wellington Regional Stadium (kickoff 0735 GMT) is the latest selection gamble Hansen has made on young players.
The 21-year-old, who will be the seventh debutant this season, had been on the selectors’ radar since he was a student at Christchurch Boy’s High, Hansen said, though his elevation came “probably a little earlier than expected”.
”All of us knew who he was ... and that’s why he’s here,“ Hansen told reporters on Thursday. ”He’s good enough to be here and now he gets an opportunity.
“We’re very confident that he’ll go out and do the job.”
Hansen’s planning was not only evident with Lienert-Brown’s selection, but also his decision to return Ben Smith to fullback and move Israel Dagg to the right wing for the clash that doubles as a Bledisloe Cup game.
Hansen said one reason was tactical -- he expected the Wallabies to kick for territory more often, which would allow Smith to have more impact on the game.
The other was simply to test out the combination.
“Both of them are world-class fullbacks and Ben is a world class winger,” Hansen said.
“We think that we need to find out if Izzy (Dagg) can start a test there and do a job for us because further down the track it opens up more selection options.”
The biggest challenge for the World Cup winners may be simply to meet Hansen’s expectations of continually raising the standard of play. Even Hansen would struggle to find much to grumble about from last week’s 42-8 victory over the Wallabies.
Michael Cheika’s men have been pilloried by their own fans, media and former players since that “Bledi awful” defeat, with the side labeled as the worst Wallabies team in a decade.
Cheika, who has said the defeat was the hardest he has had to endure as coach, has been hampered by a raft of injuries to his inside backs and a lack of depth in other areas.
That lack of depth has forced him to stick with largely the same side as last week, while injuries have necessitated a recall for flyhalf Quade Cooper with Bernard Foley shunted to inside center.
The mercurial Cooper, who once could turn a game on its head with his vision and passing, has not been able to rediscover that same spark since suffering a knee injury at the 2011 World Cup, and the New Zealand-born flyhalf has always struggled against the All Blacks.
Despite the mounting problems for the Wallabies, who are now on a five-match losing streak, Hansen was taking nothing for granted and has made sure there is no complacency within the All Blacks ranks.
”They will be desperate to come out and redeem themselves from last week,“ Hansen said. ”It would be foolish to think they’re not going to turn up and play really well.
“If we wait and sit back, then Australia will smack us.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford